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Using Data—Part 1
Judi Fenton

It sometimes seems as though teaching has become an endless stack of data to examine. Before we have time to look at the data generated by one assessment, we are expected to administer another one.

Clearly, this isn’t working. We need to slow down and take an educated look at our assessments, understand exactly what and why we are assessing, and take the time to think about how and if these assessments should influence our teaching. It’s time for educators to regain control over how we assess our students and how we ultimately use the data these assessments generate.

To this end, teachers should be asking the following questions:

What is the purpose of this assessment?
We tend to assess blindly, giving a test because we are told to, doing the unit test because we’ve finished teaching the unit, conducting an individual assessment because the whole class form is due. Additionally, we attempt to “teach to” high-stakes standardized tests because of their impact on our students, our schools, and ourselves.

Teachers must become more sophisticated about testing, determine whether assessments are formative or summative, and use only our formative assessments as tools to help us teach better. In order to do this, it’s important to determine how useful each assessment actually is for this purpose. Ask if high-stakes standardized tests (which are summative assessments) are really the most useful tool to determine how to teach a student.

How does the assessment align with the curriculum? Does it?
Obviously, we live in a world where high-stakes tests are determining much of what we teach, but is this the right way to align curricula with assessment?  Shouldn’t we be creating standards-based rich and exciting curricula and then assessing our students’ understanding of those rich curricula in multiple ways?  

Does the assessment measure what I am using it to measure?
We must ensure that the assessment we are using actually measures what we are using it to measure. For example, talking to a student about the book she is reading can be a good way to determine whether she comprehends it, while listening to her read to determine fluency won’t show us that she understands what she is reading (it will show us that she can decode quickly—or slowly.) This may sound a bit obvious, yet I have seen teachers make assumptions about this very topic. 

The only way in which we can stop the cycle of purposeless data collection being imposed upon us is to gain sophistication about assessments, understand who their “audience” is, and what they really aim to accomplish.

Do you have a comment or question about this article? E-mail Judi.


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